You have to hand it to Calder Casino. The scruffed-up racetrack once called Calder comes under the gun Tuesday at a Department of Administration (DOA) hearing. Yet it found a way to divert that negative attention and rake in more money at the same time.
On Saturday the Miami Gardens casino expanded into a 3,000-square-foot plot outdoors, setting up about 75 games, and advertising it as a "smoker friendly area." It is connected to the south side of the property's slot floor and has been named Backyard Casino.
Calder management tells me there was enough construction at Backyard Casino so I can't really say the new "facility" is basically a minimally converted empty lot. I can, but they said I shouldn't. They tell me and everybody else Backyard Casino is a "building."
“The Backyard Casino was built to accommodate both smokers and non-smokers alike in South Florida’s largest open-air gaming space,” said Matt Harper, senior director of marketing. “For our non-smoking guests, their experience will remain the same. The Backyard Casino was built as a separate building with a mix of the latest and greatest games, connected to the main casino through a set of double doors to preserve the non-smoking gaming space that our guests currently enjoy.”
But lest we forget, Calder the racetrack now is called Gulfstream Park West. It's been operating for four years under a lease agreement between The Stronach Group and Churchill Downs Inc., the parent company of Calder. In 2014 the two entities entered into a unique agreement through which Gulfstream would lease 40 racing dates from Calder, the minimum required by the state in order for Calder to maintain its casino license, operate the meet and also race unopposed at Gulfstream the remainder of the calendar year.
As part of the six-year lease, Gulfstream was given control of the operations of the racetrack, paddock, jockey's room and 450 stalls of the 1,800 which were on-site in 2014.
As I mentioned in a previous story, every stall but the 450 in the lease, plus a whole bunch of other things including toilets, have been torn down.
“We tore down the grandstands and there’s no simulcasting. You can only bet on the races in front of you,” senior racing ambassador Nancy Berry told me last October. “There are programs and machines and a food truck, and there’s limited seating under a tent.”
Which brings us to what happens at 9 a.m. Tuesday -- today.
Some time ago the 6,000-member Florida Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association (FHBPA) filed a complaint against the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering asking a court to decide if Calder Casino is in violation of Statute 551 that requires a casino with slots to be attached to the racing facility where the live meet is being held.
Calder now is a free standing casino not attached to the racing facility to which the license is issued. It's still being licensed by the Division, even after FHBPA made the Division fully aware of what's going on at Calder.
The Division has failed to respond in any investigative matter, says Bill White, FHBPA's former director and president, who will be a witness at Tuesday's hearing. "Although the Division was notified by the FHBPA of its concerns, the Division has chosen not to respond," he said.
Meanwhile, Calder, which may or may not be flouting the license law, continues to self-congratulate over its new gambling patio, which is a way around the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act.
"The Isle Casino and Racing in Pompano Beach was the first to create a covered patio for slots, in 2010," said reporter Nick Sortal writing in the South Florida Reporter and first to report the Backyard Casino story. "... Most other local casinos eventually followed. But Calder’s endeavor is the largest so far."
To repeat, state regulation says that for a casino to operate, it must be attached to a pari-mutuel. For Calder Casino, that’s Gulfstream Park West, which leases the track.
Can you lease away the racetrack but keep your casino under Florida law? Tuesday's hearing should be interesting.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith